GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Had Phil Jackson been discussing his six championships with Chicago, nobody would argue.
If he meant the five more he won coaching the Lakers, he’d have been correct.
But when he said Tuesday he did a “great job,” he was referring to last season, his first as president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks.
That’s a 17-65 season that was the worst in franchise history, for any Knicks fans who’ve been trying to forget.
It was bad enough to make anyone wonder if Jackson, whose 11 championships are the most of any NBA coach, was cut out for the job of executive.
Now he can prove he is.
With the No. 4 pick in the draft and another $25 million or so to spend in free agency, the Knicks are in position to be offseason winners.
To Jackson, that started with last season’s losing.
“I did a great job last year shedding things, getting us in position where we have this flexibility,” he said.
He was referring to trades that moved Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, which helped the bottom line but didn’t yield enough in return and dragged the Knicks toward the bottom of the standings.
Jackson had arrived for his first front-office job saying he believed the Knicks could compete for a playoff spot. Instead, Jackson lost right from the start (preferred coaching candidate Steve Kerr instead took the Golden State job and won the title) to the finish (the Knicks were the only team to drop in the lottery, falling from No. 2 to fourth).
It was unusual and somewhat unprecedented failure for someone who never had a losing season as an NBA head coach and won two more titles as a player with the Knicks. Instead of resting on that success and enjoying a comfortable retirement across the country, he committed to rebuilding a team that hasn’t won since he was part of the latter title winners in 1973.
Skeptics contend he’s in the job for the money and won’t be for long. He rarely travels to road games, mostly for health reasons and has said he leaves dealing with agents to general manager Steve Mills. He was even asked Tuesday what a team president does.
“Presides,” he said. “That’s it.”
He’s doing much more. Three months before he will turn 70 and after years of hip and knee problems, Jackson is working much harder than he did last spring, when the Knicks didn’t have a first-round pick.
“Last year at this time I was at a wedding in Turkey,” he said. “I did get back in time a couple of days before the draft, but this is the day I came back.”
He has been in the gym attending draft workouts and traveled to Chicago to interview players at the draft combine, searching for what he identifies as needs that go beyond shooting and rebounding.
He might not find the franchise big man he’d like, but he won’t stop searching for willing passers on the court and thoughtful teammates off it.
“We’re looking for players that are both trainable physically and socially,” he said.
And, Jackson knows, it would help if they were winners. Whatever he does in the draft — he revealed little Tuesday, beyond saying there was a “short percentage” the pick would be traded — not only starts the process of boosting the Knicks, but also how he’s viewed.
A quick turnaround proves that Jackson can build, he just needed tools he didn’t have in his first offseason. Further failure fuels the belief that he’s out of touch, clinging too hard to old ideals and offenses, in over his head against the younger wheelers-and-dealers who fill modern NBA front offices.
“I do think that this team has to be competitive,” Jackson said. “Have to be back in a competitive zone where we’re out there competing every night for 48 minutes. That’s something that we’re attempting to do and then everything will work the way it’s supposed to work.”
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